When news surfaced about Air, the new film about Nike’s quest to sign Michael Jordan, two major questions came up. The first: How would they pull off a film about signing Jordan that seemed to include everyone except Michael Jordan? The second: How much would the film nerd out about the sneaker culture that would emerge from Nike’s landmark deal?
The answer to the latter question was almost entirely determined by the decision-making of Charlese Antoinette Jones, Air’s costume designer.
“The hard part for me was to imagine a world before streetwear as we know it,” Jones said via Zoom from her home in New York City. “I had to come up with a way to tell the story about Nike before it was cool, and before it was what we know it to be.”
Jones grew up in a strict Christian household and she explored her curiosity about fashion by designing clothes for her Barbie collection and immersing herself in movies and TV. She was particularly infatuated with the epic film Ben Hur, which starred Charlton Heston, and film director Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, since both used costume design as a significant element in their period-specific narratives.
“You see Ben Hur go from being this really rich man to a really poor man to being rich again, and it all happens with clothing, hair, and makeup,” she said. “And in Malcolm X, so much of the storytelling and his character arc was told through his clothing: him going from a street hustler to being in prison, and then to be a part of the ministry. [Costume designer] Ruth Carter does an amazing job with that film, telling the story of the nation, and telling the story of Harlem in the ’60s.”
Jones grew up in Maryland and went to Philadelphia University (now Thomas Jefferson University) to get a business degree, but switched to fashion merchandising and marketing. After graduation, she moved to New York to develop private-label products for Macy’s. She later began styling for musician friends, working backstage for Fashion Week events, working as a rep for Armani sunglasses, and doing visual merchandising for H&M. She ultimately realized her path one day while walking around midtown Manhattan.
“I used to see all the big movie trucks around. I saw one that said ‘wardrobe’ on it, and that literally was my aha moment: How do I get on one of those to work?” Jones recalled. She began to badger colleagues for tips on how to get into costume design. “Looking back, I’m sure I was really annoying. But a lot of my friends that ended up coming up have family members in the biz or they have friends in the biz, and that’s how they got in. I had none of those connections. So I just had to ask until someone gave me a shot, and that’s what happened.”
Jones’s first costume design role was for the film Newlyweeds, a 2013 stoner flick about a couple in Brooklyn. She and director/writer Shaka King had shared a floor in a brownstone owned by a friend’s family and King gave her the gig once he was able to raise money for the film. The project encapsulated the life she and her friends were living at the time, so she made the most of a shoestring budget by thrifting, shopping at places she’d frequent herself, and pulling from showrooms at stores she had rapport with from previous gigs.
“That was probably one of my best moments in terms of people starting to have conversations online about my work. People were re-creating the costumes for Halloween, and people on Twitter from places like Brazil were asking me where to get these clothes,” Jones said of Newlyweeds. “If I could have talked to Ruth Carter on Twitter or Instagram about her work on Malcolm X, I would have! Now you can follow us and you can see behind the scenes. It’s become a really cool job.”
Other opportunities followed, such as the Netflix series Raising Dion (2019) about a young Black boy who becomes a superhero, and See You Yesterday, a 2019 sci-fi film about a science prodigy who builds a time machine to save her brother who was killed by a racist police officer.
The job that would burst the door open for her career came when she reunited with King for Judas and the Black Messiah, a film about FBI informant Bill O’Neal infiltrating the Chicago Black Panther Party, which led to the assassination of activist Fred Hampton.
Once she secured the position, she worked with buyers and vendors in Los Angeles, Ohio, and Fresno, California, to amass a closet of deadstock clothing, shoes, and accessories from the 1960s. Jones’ research led to a level of nuance that many don’t associate with the Black Panthers. For instance, she found that the Chicago chapter wore camouflage jackets instead of the leather and berets associated with the Oakland2, California, chapter. She dressed the characters accordingly — Lakeith Stanfield’s character, Bill O’Neal, wore the better-known Panther uniform since he was an outsider. Daniel Kaluuya, who played Fred Hampton, was draped in camouflage.
“That reeled people in because they’re like, ‘We don’t know this version of the Black Panthers,’ ” Jones said. “I didn’t want it to feel like cosplay, and I didn’t want people’s inherent biases about the Panthers to cause them to not delve deeper into the story.”
The film earned six Oscar nominations (including a best picture nomination) and ended up with trophies for best supporting actor and best original song. Jones began to reap the benefits of her work as soon as the film’s trailer dropped in the summer of 2020. The release coincided with the protests fueled by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which added an extra tone of urgency to the film. Filmmakers immediately began reaching out to her about other scripts.
“I’m good at what I do. I’ve known this for a long time. I just didn’t have faith in the industry recognizing me as a young Black woman in that way,” Jones said. “I was just like, if this movie comes out and it does well and I’m happy with my work, that was enough for me. So, when all these things started happening and moving, I was honestly surprised.”
The surprises continued when her work on Judas prompted director Ben Affleck to request a meeting for Air, which would require an eye for the details of mid-1980s fashion. Before taking on the project, Jones wrapped work on Random Acts of Flyness on HBO over the following months, and took a short vacation to Atlanta. Then, she moved to Los Angeles to begin production for Air.
Jones’ assignment for Air was multifaceted: She had to illustrate the space Nike was in before it became the giant it is today, to chronicle streetwear before it was the definitive way to dress, and to capture the corporate office of Nike’s headquarters in Oregon. Jones was always a dedicated sneakerhead, but the job would require much more than an affinity for shoes with the Jumpman logo.
She scoured a costume library in Los Angeles and watched documentaries on the film’s subjects. Jones found pieces through thrifting, vendors, and eBay, searching for items that had the orange Nike label that was specific to that era of the company. But as much clothing as she found and re-created, how she used it was just as important: Since work culture didn’t welcome athleisure wear at the time, she limited the film’s Nike gear to scenes where employees were exercising, coming to the office over the weekend, or recruiting for the company while traveling. She decided that Phil Knight (played by Affleck) would wear sneakers with his suits as the quirky Nike CEO, but otherwise, Nike gear in the film was rare and deliberate.
“I think that was a good idea. When you do see the Jordan 1 in the film, it hits harder because you haven’t been exposed to a lot of Nike products,” Jones said. “We didn’t want it to feel like a Nike ad. Any Nike in the film is driving the story forward in some way.”
Air has entered early conversations about the 2024 Oscars, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still has a fraught history when it comes to honoring Black creators.
“The costume branch has some of the most Black women in the academy, and it’s still not as diverse as we want it to be. The academy is not that diverse in various crafts, even outside of acting and directing,” she said.
Jones referred to an op-ed that director Gina Prince-Bythewood wrote for The Hollywood Reporter that cited systematic racism as the reason why films such as Till, Saint Omer, and The Woman King were left out of Oscar contention. Jones, who joined the academy in 2022, said that her time with the organization has made her realize it’s often difficult for Black people and others from marginalized groups to meet entry requirements because they get fewer opportunities in the first place.
“Even trying to find people to join the academy, they struggle with that, because it’s a systemic, industrywide problem that exists beyond membership of this academy,” she said. Jones also encouraged more filmmakers to “relinquish the ego involved with assuming you know more than other people do about their own stories.” And she said that the Oscars shouldn’t be the only vehicle to honor the hard work done in Hollywood.
“I still believe that there need to be other opportunities for craftspeople and artists to be recognized,” Jones said. “I think the disappointment is because it’s one predominant group with a particular taste level that’s voting. Unless that group is diversified, this is just going to continue to happen.”
Jones is doing her part to highlight and empower Black talent in Hollywood. She co-founded the Black Designer Database, which connects Black fashion designers with opportunities to land their wares in movies and TV shows, and she just hosted her first master class this spring to show to other aspiring costume designers how to break into the business.
“There’s not a lot of pathways into the career field. So, there’s a huge need for education,” she said. “That is something that I’ve been working on for the last couple years.”